Certainty is a Feeling (and Cheat Code)

Certainty as an epistemic state is a lie.

A human being can never truly be certain about something, and most people have far higher confidence in their predictions than is warranted.

That said, certainty is very useful for tennis.

The feeling of being certain that a particular shot will work seems to increase the chance of that shot actually working. Likewise, the feeling of being very uncertain that a particular shot will work – preparing for the shot while nervous and second guessing yourself – appears to significantly decrease the chance of that shot working.

So what gives here?

If certainty doesn’t actually exist, why does it seem so useful for tennis?

The key here is to separate certainty the mental state from certainty the epistemic state. One cannot actually be certain, but one can certainly feel certain: any human who predicts something with 100% probability is wrong, but a human who merely feels certain about something is simply manifesting a mental state that is very useful to human functioning.

Teasing out the Feeling from the Matter of Fact

In tennis, you want to feel certain that your shots will work, even though the fact of the matter is that they won’t always work. This applies at both a micro level and a macro level.

You want to feel certain that you won’t miss, even though you will. You want to feel certain you’ll win the next point, even though it’s likely a toss up, and you want to feel certain that you’ll win the match, even though you’ll probably lose about half the matches you play (and if you don’t, find better competition).

To cultivate our feeling of certainty, we need to separate that feeling from our knowledge of the actual probabilities involved.

An Example – Neutral Forehands

Image that you know, from your practice, that you can execute your deep, cross-court forehand at a frequency of 95/100. You’ve done many sets of 100 cross-court forehands, and you always make between 90-100 of them, typically only missing 4 or 5.

This fact is not actually useful in the moment, while trying to execute a cross-court forehand.

Therefore, instead of paying any attention to it, you want to feel certain that the shot is going to work. In fact, if you feel uncertain, if you get nervous knowing that you’ll miss about 5% of the time, chances are that it won’t actually be 5% – that miss-rate will skyrocket.

Is this just lying to yourself?

Some people will feel like they’re “deluding themselves” if they attempt to feel certain about a shot, while simultaneously knowing, factually, that the shot is far from 100% accurate.

To these people, I would argue that the “fact of the matter” when it comes to certainty only appears to be relevant, but in reality it’s not.

From a factual standpoint, there exists no accurate expression of certainty; the mental state itself is always in err. It never maps to an outcome that is 100% likely, because such outcomes don’t exist. It is merely a feeling which causes you to act a certain way.

Certainty exists to delude you into performing better.

In fact, from an evolutionary perspective, certainty was almost definitely very useful precisely when the outcome was very uncertain.

Consider the first sailors who colonized Australia, crossing the ocean in boats made of reeds. Don’t you think they had a “false” sense of the actual probability of completing that journey alive? Yet, because of their certainty (the mental state), they forged ahead, and today, Australia is a flourishing human colony.

Your feeling of certainty is an illusion, at its very core, and it always has been, from its very inception. Certainty exists to delude you into performing better. That’s why the feeling of certainty was selected for in the past, that’s why your brain manifests it today, and that’s why it’ll help your tennis tomorrow.

Still worried about lying to yourself?

Both for tennis and in general, I’d encourage you to adopt a relatively Machiavellian worldview with respect to your brain:

Treat your brain as a tool which you can use to accomplish your goals (like becoming better at tennis). In domains like science and engineering, the “truth” is very useful, but in the mental domain, it’s so difficult to even separate the truth from a convenient fiction your brain has erected that worrying about it is often more trouble than it’s worth. Don’t limit your progress by trying to ensure your feelings are “true.” They’re just feelings. Instead, just try to manipulate your consciousness into the state that’s most useful to you.

In our case, the feeling of certainty helps our shots succeed. We like to think that this feeling maps onto outcomes that are certain, and we know, for a fact, that our shot’s success is not certain, so that feels like a contradiction. However, we ignore this contradiction, because the mental state of certainty is useful in spite of it.

What if I just can’t feel certain?

Maybe the fact that you miss a lot makes it impossible for you to feel certain on the court. Try this mental re-framing exercise:

Instead of being certain that your shot will work, be certain that your shot is the correct choice. Think of tennis like poker. If you’re at the bottom of your range with 2 blockers to the nuts, you’ve gotta bluff. Of course, it might not work in this instance, but you can still be certain that it’s the correct play.

It’s not certainty of outcome, but rather certainty of process.

As you prepare to send your approach shot whistling into your opponent’s backhand corner, yes, you have a miss-rate, and yes, that miss-rate is nonzero. But given your practice, your strategy, and your execution to this point, you know this is the correct choice, even if it doesn’t happen to work on this particular shot.

“He always knows he’s going to win.”

A practice partner and I were recently discussing the mental side of tennis, and he mentioned a friend of his who has the best mental game he’s ever seen. The guy plays absolutely lights out on pressure points – you can’t even tell the score is close. How?

“He just knows he’s gonna win.”

But… but he’s not going to win, a lot of the time. That belief is false. How does he maintain it after losing a few times?

Your feeling of certainty doesn’t need to be connected to reality. The truth is, your feeling of certainty is not a belief, it’s merely a feeling, and that feeling itself is useful, epistemology be damned.

1 Comment

  1. Mike
    October 29, 2021

    Contra cheat code! Yes!


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